Egypt court bans Al-Jazeera TV affiliate

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CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Tuesday ordered Al-Jazeera's local affiliate and three other stations to stop broadcasting, part of an expanding government crackdown against media seen as supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and the country's ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

In another legal move, a military tribunal issued the first verdicts against backers of Morsi, sentencing one to life in prison and handing sentences of five to 15 years in prison to 51 other defendants for assaulting troops during riots in the port city of Suez last month. The riots were part of a nationwide wave of violence sparked when security forces cracked down on pro-Morsi camps in Cairo, killing hundreds.

Egypt's new military-backed government has moved on multiple fronts to put down Morsi supporters, who continue to challenge the popularly supported military coup that removed the country's first elected president. Hundreds of supporters, including leading members of the Brotherhood and its allies, have been detained or face prosecution on charges ranging from inciting violence to possession of weapons and murder.

Morsi himself has been held in an undisclosed location since the July 3 coup, and has been referred to trial for inciting the murder of his opponents. No date has been set. Despite the crackdown, Morsi supporters planned protests Tuesday to commemorate two months since he was ousted.

At the same time, the military is stepping up its campaign against Islamic militants, who have escalated attacks in the tumultuous Sinai Peninsula since Morsi's toppling. On Tuesday, helicopter gunships rocketed houses and cars in several villages, targeting what the state news agency MENA said were hideouts of militants. At least eight suspected militants were killed and 15 wounded, it said.

Pro-Morsi protests have waned in recent weeks, and a large margin of the public has backed the crackdown, growing weary of violence and hostile to the Brotherhood. The military-backed interim government is charging ahead with their transition plan, appointing a committee to review the constitution passed under Morsi. A new version is to be put to a popular referendum within two months, and if passed, it would open the way for presidential and parliamentary elections.

With little sign of reconciliation with Morsi's Islamist backers, authorities have targeted media outlets deemed sympathetic with the former leader — particularly the local affiliate of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera has repeatedly denied any bias, and continued its critical coverage of the developments in Egypt.

The administrative court Tuesday accused Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr and three other stations of violating broadcasting conditions and ordered their offices closed and broadcasts halted.

The court said in its ruling that the stations "hurt national security," as well as "broadcast lies to the Egyptian people, defamed the armed forces, violated the professional code of conduct, and incited foreign countries against Egypt," according to MENA.

It accused the stations of fabricating news and claiming that footage and pictures from the Syrian conflict were from Egypt, labeling Morsi's ouster a coup and denying that millions of Egyptians protested to demand his fall.

Al-Jazeera officials were not immediately available for comment. After the Tuesday decision, Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr was still on air. It broadcast an amateur video of an alleged survivor from a prison truck which police fired at and threw in it tear gas canisters, killing 36. Those killed were mostly pro-Morsi detainees, and the incident caused serious embarrassment to authorities.

Shaimaa Abu ElKhir, of the Committee to Protect Journalists based in Cairo, said authorities are using incitement accusations to prosecute stations even though there is no law defining what constitutes incitement.

This legal vacuum "is used to stifle journalists," she said.

CPJ said Friday that authorities are trying to undermine coverage of Morsi supporters' activities by harassing and detaining journalists from media critical of the military-led government.

Five journalists have been killed since Morsi's removal and 80 have been arbitrarily detained, Reporters Without Borders said Monday. Seven remain in detention — including two from Al-Jazeera, two who work for a Brotherhood-affiliated news portal and a free-lance journalist. Also, at least 40 news providers have been physically attacked, whether by police or by pro-Morsi or pro-army demonstrators.

The moves against Al-Jazeera's local affiliate have been building for weeks. It extensively covered Brotherhood protests following the July 3 military coup that ousted Morsi after millions took to the streets demanding he step down. In recent weeks, it began broadcasting recorded messages from Brotherhood members who are wanted by authorities and are hiding.

Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr's offices were raided after Morsi was deposed, and 28 staffers were detained. They were later released. Several days ago, three government ministries issued a statement calling the station's broadcasts a "national threat."

Since the raid, the station has been running its studio operations from its headquarters in Doha, Qatar, and it has often relied heavily on amateur videos of protests and other events. The station is broadcast on Egypt's state-run satellite NileSat, and it has complained that its signal has been heavily interfered with, so it has provided alternative signals through another Arab satellite.

Presumably, under the court order, NileSat will stop its transmission. Also ordered stopped by the court was Ahrar 25, a station affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood that sprang up after the Brotherhood's licensed station Misr 25 was shut down along with four Islamist TV networks on the day Morsi was ousted.

Tuesday's court ruling also affected a Jordanian station Yarmouk and Al-Quds, a station affiliated with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules Gaza.

Two other Al-Jazeera offices in Cairo — the regional Al-Jazeera and Al-Jazeera English — continued to operate in Egypt. But authorities have also closed in on their operations. On Sunday, authorities deported three members of an Al-Jazeera English crew, after detaining them for nearly a week, accusing them of working illegally.

The rulings Tuesday by the military tribunal in Suez came against a group of Morsi supporters accused of attacking troops, sabotaging armored vehicles and torching churches in the port city on Aug. 14 and 16.

Military officials said, besides the life sentence, three people were sentenced to 15 years, one person to 10 years and 47 to five years in prison. Twelve were acquitted. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Malek Adly, a rights lawyer who is following the security sweep against Morsi supporters, called the ruling a rushed verdict that doesn't "realize justice."

"We have always long been against military tribunals for civilians and have campaigned against it," he said. Such trials, he said, "preserve the idea that the military institution is a state within a state, with its own tribunals."

But he noted that it was Morsi and his supporters who backed an article allowing military trials of civilians in the constitution drafted and approved during his year in office.

"Now, they are the first to be tried according to it."